And members of the public are understandably upset.
Earlier this month The Telegram revealed the quietly organized fundraising event for the St. John’s Board of Trade, which allows members who cough up at least $500 to network with Premier Dwight Ball and cabinet ministers in an “intimate” setting.
According to The Telegram, the Board of Trade pitched it as a “unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity to network with some of the most influential people in Newfoundland and Labrador in government and the private sector,” and an “intimate event with 5-6 people per table allowing you maximum opportunity to network.”
Why would anyone have a problem with this?
Well, let’s think. There is, first of all, the struggling not-for-profit that the proceeds are going to help.
Yes, the Board of Trade is a non-profit. Perhaps not one in the sense that we usually associate with non-profits, which do things like help children suffering from terminal illness, or coordinate earthquake recovery efforts abroad, or fundraise to support impoverished artists. The Board of Trade represents as lot of rich folks; it’s a lobby group for business owners.
But given that it’s a non-profit and must fundraise its revenues, what’s wrong with it offering lobby sessions with government in an “intimate” setting? Is there anything wrong with government-industry speed-dating sessions?
Consider the difficulty most of us have in meeting with government regarding important issues.
Take, for example, the union representing library workers, which has not been able to get a single meeting with Education Minister Dale Kirby to talk about the library system which his government has been trying to eviscerate.
Or the fact that Indigenous land protectors like Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter have to put their lives and freedom on the line in order to get government’s attention. At this very moment, in fact, people are blockading the Labrador Affairs Office in Goose Bay for an eighth consecutive business day to get government’s ear and a promise that the health and safety of their communities will not be put at risk.
How might those people feel about industry lobbyists getting “intimate” and “one-of-a-kind” opportunities to have supper and “network” with cabinet ministers simply because they have the money to do so?
When it is difficult for community-based organizations to schedule meetings with government, the eagerness with which cabinet ministers make themselves available for an intimate evening with industry is understandably troubling.
There is also the concern that perhaps cabinet ministers’ time would be better spent attending to the needs of their constituents rather than wining and dining with industry lobbyists. When rural communities are unable to provide safe drinking water to their residents, the notion of ministers’ time being spent networking with businesspeople and corporate elites at an event designed to raise money for a lobby group that includes many of the richest people in this province is understandably revolting.
Some of us in this province might have a more basic, visceral response to the event. For someone living in Nain, or so many other communities in Labrador, the thought of ministers and lobbyists munching on complimentary cheese and crackers might provoke anger when government inaction has resulted in a single can of chicken noodle soup costing over $7, and a 12-pack of blueberry muffins over $70 for northern residents.
Others might question the priorities of a government which supports fundraising initiatives of lobby groups like the Board of Trade, whose submission to the WorkPlaceNL Policy Review last year called on government to “draft more stringent language that does not unfairly burden employers” when it comes to compensation for workplace injuries, and whose submission to the provincial government’s minimum wage indexation review argued against increases to the minimum wage, and even called for “inexperienced” and bar and restaurant staff to be exempted from the minimum wage.
These are, presumably, the sort of proposals they will be discussing intimately with cabinet ministers Thursday evening.
There is also quite a prevalent attitude in this province that the wealthy and industry have far too cozy a relationship with government and enjoy a disproportionate degree of government’s time and attention. Events like this simply underscore that sense. In a province where government has made very poor decisions that hurt the public and benefit a small number of wealthy industrialists—Muskrat Falls, for instance—the public anger over this relationship is not only understandable, it is very sensible.
There is talk of an inquiry into Muskrat Falls, to figure out how such a disastrous deal was approved by government with so little objective analysis or oversight. But we only need to look at events like this week’s cash-for-access fundraiser to start getting a sense of how it happened.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.